Oh, Pope. I do not know how to read you. I don’t know how to make sense of you. Alas. I may just be playing devil’s advocate here against the general air of Oh-Pope-has-been-so-unfairly-labeled-as-a-jerk-but-really-he-was-the-most-moral-genius-just-a-bit-cynical-is-all (which I’m sure is all very true) that I have been presented so far, but let me just posit that I don’t know how to read Pope because I don’t know what he thinks of his readers.
Who are the satires, the vituperation – no matter how hilarious – meant for? What kind of reader does Pope care about?
In Peri Bathous I’m looking specifically at the following declaration:
‘Tis a fruitless
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Undertaking to write for Men of a nice and foppish Gusto , whom, after all, it is almost impossible to please; and ’tis still more Chimerical to write for Posterity , of whose Taste we cannot make any Judgment, and whose Applause we can never enjoy. It must be confess’d, our wiser Authors have a present End,
Et prodesse volunt, & delectare Poetæ.
Their true Design is Profit or Gain ; in order to acquire which, ’tis necessary to procure Applause, by administring Pleasure to the Reader: From whence it follows demonstrably, that their Productions must be suited to the present Taste ; and I cannot but congratulate our Age on this peculiar Felicity, that tho’ we have made indeed great Progress in all other Branches of Luxury, we are not yet debauch’d with any high relish in Poetry, but are in this one Taste, less nice than our Ancestors. If an Art is to be estimated by its Success, I appeal to Experience, whether there have not been, in proportion to their Number, as many starving good Poets, as bad ones?
Knowing full well that Peri Bathous is a satire, ridiculing contemporary poets and the everything-for-sale ethos of contemporaneous Britain, I know, obviously, that this paragraph is dripping with sarcasm; Pope is not actually “congratulating” his Age for the high premium being placed on giving the reader Pleasure, or for having a culture of poetry that’s resisting “high relish.” But I don’t understand why Pleasure is being presented as something to be scoffed at. I don’t know how the rest of you read, but “pleasure” in reading is very important to me; I would stop, otherwise.
Considering the fact that nearly every critical piece we’ve read on Pope describes him as a highly moral man – an Achilles in a world of Hectors – I can only assume that Pope wants his readers to be as invested in issues of morality – right and wrong, corrupt society—as he. But if readers went along with authors just out of political allegiances, rather than actual enjoyment of the authors’ artistic or literary merits, there would be many more impactful authors than actually exist.
Now, this may just come down to a question of the definition of pleasure. I prefer black coffee to the saccharine, caramel-coated frappuccino. My pleasure in reading comes as much from bitter realizations and mind-screwing challenges as it does from gorgeous language and vivid imagery. If there are authors who can provide all of those, I will provide the Applause, and maybe even pay some money.